I Am a Screw | 吾輩は螺子である

By Ziyi Zhu, MC ’17 ( Yale Visiting Student)

Based on his personal experience riding the subway in Tokyo, Ziyi discusses how modernization in Japan relates to alienation.



Every time I went to school, I’d ride the Tozai Line. Usually school ended at six, which is exactly the time when the majority of the population gets off work. Yet the evening rush hours are nowhere near the morning one when it comes to overcrowding. I used to live by the old Edo River. Every morning, I would walk a long way to get to the nearest subway station. From there, I would take a train that passed through Nishi-Kasai Station, Minami-Sunamachi Station, Tōyōchō Station, Kiba Station, Monzen-Nakachō Station, Kayabachō Station, Nihombashi Station, Ōtemachi Station, Takebashi Station, Kudanshita Station, Iidabashi Station, and Kagurazaka Station, and finally I would get off at Waseda Station. The thirteen-station ride would usually take twenty seven minutes, but in the morning it would take more than an hour.

Strange, right? But the fact is that in the morning so many people want to take the train that a train comes every minute. As a result, the trains stop between stations so often that I’ve memorized the broadcast: “This is a sudden stop. This is a sudden stop. We are very sorry that we delay your journey in this hectic occasion in the morning.” And every time the train reaches Ōtemachi, the broadcast announces again: “We are so sorry that the train is five/ six/ seven/ eight/ fifteen/ twenty minutes behind our schedule. We are so sorry we are running late. We are so sorry for the inconvenience. If you would like to transfer, you should follow these directions…”

If you think that since there are so many trains each train would not be as crowded, then you are dead wrong. Statistics show that in the morning rush hours, Tozai Line on average takes up 199% its maximum carrying capacity. If you tried to board a train gently, you would never make it. Instead, you collide. You strike. You squeeze. You take your backpack off your back (oh, you have to, trust me, otherwise it wouldn’t end up well), you arch your torso, you gather all the force you can muster and focus it in your shoulder. You strike, and you strike hard, against the pile of human flesh in the train, again, and again. Once you have found both of your feet on the solid floor in the train, you stretch, put your hand over the door, and paw against the inner wall of the carriage, until you feel newcomers strike you, and you are pushed inward. Yet that might not be enough. Here come all the staff members. They know more than how to manage a subway system. They know exactly how to push you onto a train that looks as if there is absolutely no way it can fit another person. Even if you do get in, there is a chance that your wristband, a cord on your rucksack or even the cloth of your pants will be wedged in between the automatic doors. In that case you will not be able to move until the next station. If you get on the train with your arm up in the air, your arm remains up in the air. If you get on the train with your arm down next to your torso, it remains down next to your torso. If you want to pick up something from your schoolbag, oh boy, good luck on that. Whenever the train reaches a station, the priority becomes how not to fall out; whenever the train reaches a transit station (very unfortunately my everyday route passes some of the busiest transit stations in Tokyo), the conflict of interest between the people who try to get out and the people who try to stay on the train makes it an amazing action scene from one of Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible films.

There is an expression in Japanese called “piling up like canned fish inside a can”. I can’t think of anything more vivid than that to describe the morning Tozai Line. That’s the truth, but what strikes me the most is that nobody is complaining about it. Nobody. I have taken the train almost every day for two years, yet the Japanese “salary men,” who live in Chiba prefecture and go to the center of Tokyo to work, have been taking the train almost every day for the last two decades. They are used to it. They are used to how life flows here: you listen; you don’t argue.

Over these two years, I got to observe my fellow commuters closely. They are predominately men. Men in their 20s, men in their 30s, men in their 40s, men in their 50s, men in their 60s. Everyone wears the same clothes: a white shirt, a black tie, a pair of black trousers, and an oversized black suit. They carry their handkerchiefs around them all the time, and they always sweat. When the auto door pops open, they squeeze in. Nobody is talking. When the auto door pops open again, they squeeze out. Everybody is walking, in this same black package, down the stairs, in the same frequency, as if they have discussed it before, same distance between one and another, same stride length, and again, no talking. They walk as if they are a marching honor guard, only without honor, and without colors. You can tell no one apart. There is no need for you to be told apart. Don’t be different. Read the atmosphere. You are just a cog in the machine. You are just a screw. You are not important. Forget about shining. Do what the others do.

Around 3.68 million passengers ride on the city’s Yamanote Line every day. Around 3.64 million people swipes their cards on the gates in Shinjuku Stations every day. Around 37,832,892 people lives in Greater Tokyo. I am this 1/37,832,892 when I leave home every day. But no need to be lonely. No need to be scared. No need to be vulnerable. You can’t be vulnerable. You just need to be polite, and use the most sincere honorific expressions all the time; you just need to work hard, stay in the office until midnight, and then go to drinking parties with your colleagues and your boss and everybody else, just like everybody else. You just need to choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. That is just how life is supposed to be. Sometimes at night you take a train to Marunochi or Shinkuku, and walk under the spectacular skyline lit up by dazzling neon lights, and you start to wonder. Death from overwork is all over the news, while the traditional life-long employment system is falling apart. Young people aren’t reproducing anymore, and at the same time the county has the highest suicide rate among all the OECDs. But who cares? At least I don’t. I am just a screw. I am just like you.